American Troops in Haiti Show Their Job Doesn’t Always Involve Breaking Things
The Pentagon organizes a different kind of intervention
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Oct. 4, 2016, Hurricane Matthew crashed into Haiti’s southern coast, killing and injuring hundreds. The next day, the first elements of a U.S. military task force landed in the country to help civilians evacuate dangerous areas, distribute aid and otherwise assess the aftermath.
The Pentagon regularly touts American military power. However, the humanitarian mission to Haiti highlights how the military’s job doesn’t always involve smashing things.
“The same capabilities that make us a dominant military force … allow us the ability to provide critically-needed assistance and humanitarian aid,” Marine Corps Lt. Col. Christopher Hafer, head of Combat Logistics Battalion 24 of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, told U.S. Navy reporters.
Though the American troops working in Haiti have the same skills and gear, their actions amount to very different kind of military intervention.
With reports that the final death toll might be over 1,000, Matthew could become the deadliest such weather pattern in the Western Hemisphere in more than 10 years.
Ultimately, Matthew was the first storm to reach Category 5 — sustained winds blowing faster than 156 miles per hour — in the Atlantic in more than a decade, and was the first Category 4 storm to hit Haiti in more than a half century.
“We have great difficulties in contacting our teams on the spot,” Emilie Bernard, the country director for Haiti at the French nongovernmental organization ACTED, said in an Oct. 7 statement. “But very clearly, the southern peninsula is cut off, both in communications and access routes, which were blocked by the storm.”
Other organizations reported similar devastation.
“For an entire 80 mile coastline to have palm trees leveled, shows the true force of hurricane Matthew. One out of three homes in this area are destroyed or submerged,” Michael Capponi, founder of the non-profit Global Empowerment Mission, which works in Haiti, wrote on Facebook on Oct. 6.
“As of now there is no way of getting aid to many of these towns without helicopters.”
But this is exactly where the Pentagon’s own preparedness shines. Many of the same elements of a military invasion, oddly, apply to disaster relief.
In an actual invasion, helicopters and landing craft would move soldiers and equipment from off-shore ships. Cargo planes would ferry supplies from land bases to secured runways. Surveillance aircraft would seek out potential targets, and troops would help reopen ports and offload gear.
In terms of logistics, the U.S. military responds to natural disasters much in the same manner. Aircraft — especially helicopters — are ideally suited to lug supplies to remote or otherwise inaccessible areas. Spy planes, drones and patrol aircraft can quickly spot damaged buildings or civilians in need.
The Pentagon keeps ships, aircraft and helicopters in the Caribbean in case any number of crises break out. So, on Oct. 5, the first American troops touched down in Haiti and got to work.
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Washington had already pre-positioned 100 U.S. soldiers and Marines closer to Matthew’s projected path. This group flew a small number of helicopters from Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras more than 500 miles northeast to Grand Cayman.
U.S. Army aviators brought along one UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and one CH-47 Chinook from Joint Task Force-Bravo. Formed from existing forces in 1984, the unit spent the final years of the Cold War aiding U.S.-affiliated regimes fighting communist insurgencies. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the group found itself increasingly helping out after hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
On top of that, a separate U.S. Marine Corps unit at the Honduran base sent two CH-53E Super Stallions. The leathernecks set up this task force in 2015 to be on call after natural disasters.
Between Oct. 5 and 7, Army Chinooks and Marine Super Stallions delivered more than 10,000 pounds of clean water, food and other aid across Haiti, according to an official briefing.
The choppers shuttled American officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development, aid workers and reporters from the Associated Press and CNN to assess the damage and meet with local groups working on the ground, another daily report explained.
Haiti’s small and often densely packed cities makes delivering aid from the air quite risky. After the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010, the Pentagon attempted to airdrop food and water, but largely ruled out such missions as too dangerous.
“The critical concern was that the airdrop deliveries could inflict damage — injuries or fatalities — on the Haitians or local structures,” Air Force historians later wrote. “When all was said and done, only four aerial delivery missions took place.”
After Hurricane Matthew, U.S. Air Force C-130 and C-17 cargo planes instead descended on Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, unloading equipment and aid for delivery elsewhere. By Oct. 8, a second wave of Army and Marines helicopters were flying missions alongside the initial American troops.
U.S. Navy and Coast Guard aircraft traveling from Guantanamo Bay and Florida flew overhead and snapped pictures. The sailing branch sent one of its still relatively new P-8 Poseidon patrol planes to join the surveillance missions.
Along with on-the-ground surveys, the overflights discovered that out of 15 hospitals, eight were intact, but only one was functional. Another five were simply “unreachable,” while aid workers had evacuated the last site.
One of the most important jobs after a disaster is getting medical facilities up and running. Following Matthew, the United Nations and international aid groups reported a surge in cases of cholera — which can be lethal without proper treatment — in Haiti.
“These are areas where basic water and sanitation were already insufficient, and health care provision was often weak and under-funded,” Médecins Sans Frontières noted in an Oct. 12 press release. “In Port-à-Piment, in the South department, an MSF team treated 87 cholera … many of them coming from Chardonnière and from Port-à-Piment.”
By Oct. 10, the Pentagon was debating whether or not to build a temporary bridge to replace one washed out by Matthew. Military engineers could permanently replace the La Petit Goave de la Digue bridge in fewer than 30 days, but at a cost of up to $6.3 million — including the money to send the troops in the first place.
Another option was to hire contractors to build a new, but possibly less impressive span on short notice. Washington estimated it would cost a private company more than $680,000 to get the crossing up in just over a month.
Then on Oct. 11, the amphibious ship USS Mesa Verde joined the operation, bringing extra Marines, helicopters and four MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors. Able to land like a helicopter, but fly like a traditional plane, the Marine Corps has already dispatched these unique aircraft to disaster areas around the world, including to Nepal following the deadly earthquake in April 2015.
Mesa Verde would stay in Haiti until the significantly larger USS Iwo Jima took over on Oct. 14. This 40,000-ton amphibious assault ship brought the bulk of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and tons of aid to assist in the relief effort.
As of Oct. 13, U.S. military helicopters alone had distributed almost 160 metric tons of aid. At that time, Washington had more than 420 “boots on the ground” in Haiti.
But despite the purpose of the mission, a rapid influx of U.S. forces — along with other foreign troops and first responders from Latin America, Europe and Asia — might still look like an invasion.
In 1994, Washington did invade Haiti after a political crisis, and sent soldiers again a decade later in response to a coup. With this already complicated relationship, the U.S. military has stressed that its troops are only there to help.
Daily briefings from the Pentagon’s top headquarters for Central and South America explained that public affairs officials were focused on messages including “U.S. helos to Haiti to help,” “U.S. military assets providing assistance” and “Military relief efforts easing suffering.”
This is very deliberate wording on the part of the Department of Defense. A separate theory of “soft power” embraced by the U.S. military since 2007 calls for humanitarian operations to boost America’s image around the world.
It’s a tactic of good deeds with the goal of an improved reputation. But the United States has sent troops, planes and ships to disaster zones for decades. That’s not soft power, necessarily. But in both cases, the outward messaging is to emphasize the positive.
Crucially, the public relations effort surrounding Hurricane Matthew wanted to make it clear that civilians at the U.S. Agency for International Development were in charge of the American response. Unlike, for instance, the chain of command during an actual invasion.